Monday, December 14, 2009

Blowing the whistle

Referee Tiny Wharton, the Scottish Football BlogApparently, during his time managing in England, Jim Gannon refused to talk to Sky Sports for a number of months. Not in an Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp type bust up. No, Jim wouldn't talk because he got a bad picture from his satellite dish at home.

An amusing anecdote but also a sign that Mr Gannon is not above taking an unconventional approach or taking on the big boys.

So perhaps it's no surprise that it's the Motherwell manager who is the unofficial shop steward as certain managers go loco over the issue of poor referees in the SPL.

Some managers have refused to get involved. Others have backed Gannon. Craig Levein, and can anyone remember a time when he wasn't at war with the authorities, has jumped on board. So has Csaba Lazlo, although you suspect that much like Fergie calling the ref a fat knacker this is a good way to distract attention from the Tynecastle malaise.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment came from Gus McPherson. Gus is, of course, an increasingly likeable arch pragmatist and his response was as to the point as you might expect. Referees, he surmised, are no worse than last year.

And it's Gus that's probably hit the nail on the head. As Jim McLean pointed out in Friday's Daily Record, the role of the referee is now analysed like never before. Tiny Wharton was safe in the knowledge that his every decision would immediately be scrutinized by such footballing behemoths as Craig Burley.

Burley's black and white opinions of every foul, offside and booking are aided by instant replays from every angle. Even then Craig is wrong as often as he is right. Which might suggest that we are all guilty of imperfection and error and we can expect our referee's to display human frailties on occasion.

Football is also now a business. Big money is involved and the pressures are great. In an age when relegation brings with it the threat of bankruptcy each decision has major ramifications.

There, if I may widen the scope of my pontification, a societal change at play as well. Everybody now expects everything to be perfect and we are too willing to slip into the role of hard done by, helpless victim when things don't go our way. Ireland's mammoth session of greeting over Thierry Henry's gifted left hand was proof positive of that.

For all these changes though not much has changed. Supporter's of teams outside the Old Firm have always claimed a ref would develop acute myopia whenever a blue or hooped shirt transgressed. Rangers and Celtic supporter's have always claimed that certain referees are of certain religions. And every fan in the land has been united by the apparently certain knowledge that all referees are of questionable parentage.

What seems to be different this time is the extent to which Gannon and others are prepared to unleash their scorn. Unprecedented. So vitriolic that the referee's are even threatening to strike.

They're are good referee's and there are some who are not so good. And the very best referee's will still sometimes get it wrong. In much the same as there are good players, bad players and good managers, bad managers.

I don't agree with Gannon and his cohorts. Things aren't as bad as they are making out. And, utlimately, I think they're doing the game a disservice.

I would like changes. I'd like the appeals procedure to be quicker, clearer and more transparent. I'd like the referee's to face the press after a game and provide the rationale for certain decisions. And I would like more responsibility handed back to to the men in the middle. We have to trust them to apply common sense to the unique circumstances of every game.

All of these changes rely on a wind of change blowing through the corridors of power at the SFA. This I think gets to the heart of the matter. This public row is because managers are frustrated at the SFA, the refusal to change, the refusal to even discuss. Many of our problems can be traced back to the fact that it is the SFA, not referees, who are not up to the job.

In the short term, of course, we risk referees being scared to do their jobs as they see fit. In that sense each Gannon rant is self defeating. In the longer term it's going to be harder to persuade people that being a ref is a viable option. The talent pool will get ever shallower.

Whatever Jim Gannon is trying to achieve, he's doing the game no favours going about it this way.